In Saint Lucia, a Legend of Caribbean Hospitality
(Caribbean Journal)- Saint Lucian hotelier Joyce Destang began her professional career as a teacher, but it was investing in real estate that gave her the knowledge and confidence to purchase the hotel that launched her on the path to becoming one of the country’s leading entrepreneurs.
Destang, managing director of Bay Garden Resorts, has accumulated a long list of honors attached to her name, including the prestigious Order of the British Empire she received in 2004, the St. Lucia Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year she won in 2014, and, in 2020, awarded the St. Lucia Gold Medal of Merit, given by the St. Lucian government to honor “long and meritorious service” in the arts, sciences, literature and other fields.
Joyce and her husband, Desmond, also an educator, saw an opportunity to diversify their investments when the property that would become the 54-room Bay Gardens Hotel in Rodney Bay came up for sale in 1994. “It was never our intention to own two hotels,” says Destang. “As much as we liked the business, we didn’t want to work that hard.”
Nonetheless, an aborted property deal left Destang with a plot of prime beachfront land and, as success with the first hotel grew, she acquired the former Palm Tree Hotel and reopened it as the Bay Gardens Inn in 2002. Five years later, the 78-room Bay Gardens Beach Resort & Spa was built from the ground up on the Destangs’ property in Rodney Bay Village, becoming the hub of a mini hospitality empire that would be further enhanced by the addition of the Bay Gardens Marina Haven Hotel, previously owned by Joyce’s brother, and most recently a passel of luxury beach villas.
Woman-run and locally owned, the Bay Gardens resorts group stands out in an industry where men still tend to dominate many top-tier managerial positions and hotels are often operated and financed from abroad. Joyce traveled extensively prior to acquiring her first hotel, and served on the St. Lucia Tourist Board. “By nature, I’m a very hospitable person,” she says.
A willingness to designate has been part of the reason for her success. “I got people who were more qualified than me to run the hotels,” she said. “All I did was watch the bottom line.” Destang may leave the day-to-day operations to others, but she still scrutinizes nearly every expenditure make in support of the hotels.
“I’m a frugal person,” she says. “Whatever business you’re in, you can’t make a dollar and go spend 90 cents of it. You don’t walk into a bank with empty pockets and expect to get a loan for a hotel.”
Destang also puts a premium on what she called “common sense” over titles, certificates, and degrees when hiring staff — even when it comes to her own family, whose members now occupy around 10 positions within the hotel operations. “My own kids had to work if they wanted expensive sneakers, they took the bus to school,” she says. “Family members have to prove themselves if they want to work at the hotel — they have to apply just like anyone else.”
As for being a woman in charge, “I didn’t have a problem with that,” says Destang. Her relationship with the hotel’s financiers goes back nearly 30 years, “and they know we’re not the kind of people who will borrow money and not pay it back,” she says. As for dealing with contractors and other suppliers for the hotel, “They know they have to talk to me now.”
Destang may not have intended to become the owner of four hotels, but the Bay Gardens group has become a major player in St. Lucian hospitality, particularly in Rodney Bay and in the marketplace for affordable stays on the island, which has largely built its reputation on luxury resort vacations.
The Bay Gardens Beach Resort & Spa is considered a four-star hotel, but rooms can usually be found for under $200 a night, which is also the case at the Destangs’ other hotels, as well. Guests at the other properties also have use of the resort’s amenities, including a stretch of Reduit Beach and the family friendly resort’s offshore waterpark.
“If you’re going to Jade Mountain or Ladera you have to pay big bucks,” says Destang. “Our hotel is not big bucks.” The Bay Gardens hotels may lack the dramatic views of those mountainside resorts, but Destang contends that Reduit Beach is the best on the island and says her small hotels can give guests the kind of personalized service that others cannot.
Destang has seen a lot of changes in St. Lucia over the last three decades in the hospitality industry, the latest being the emergence of the AirBnB market. The Bay Gardens Beach Resort & Spa itself has embraced the trend toward all inclusive vacations by offer its own “pay one price” stay package, with a twist: in addition to on-site dining, the resort gives meal vouchers to guests so that they can enjoy a half dozen other local restaurants during their stay. “We don’t want guests to feel closed in,” she explains.
Almost 100 percent of the Bay Gardens staff is St. Lucian, from the housekeeping department to upper management, and is comprised of both local people and members of the island’s diaspora. Destang looks for employees who know how to put guests first. She calls the people of St. Lucia the island’s greatest tourism asset, above even its legendary natural beauty, but also wants workers who cherish everything that makes St. Lucia special.
“It’s their island,” she says. “They have to want to take care of it and protect it.”